The Daily

World Cup 2010

When the Games Start to Matter

June 26, 2010 | by

So far in the World Cup, it’s Donald Rumsfeld 1 Pele 0. The former Defense Secretary’s sneering dismissal of Old Europe seems, in this realm anyway, prophetic, as anciens regimes slink home to the continent in disgrace; while Pele’s famous pronouncement that an African team will win the World Cup by the year 2000 seems unlikely to come true before 2014 at the earliest.

It’s been a strange cup so far because there’s only been one good game: Italy-Slovakia, which only really took off in the barnstorming last ten minutes. There have been exciting moments, Landon Donovan scoring against Algeria most clearly. (Though if you want proof of the World Cup’s triumph over the historical anti–soccer American bias, look no further than the mayhem that greeted the desperate injury time winner; it’s Algeria, man, seriously.) There was also South Africa going two nil up against France, Messi against the entire Nigerian defense, and perhaps most memorably of all Patrice Evra against Robert Duverne. But it’s hard to remember a whole game, and there has been nothing so far that compares to either of the semi finals from four years ago; Italy v Germany or France v Brazil. (There is also the France-Brazil from 1986 that is, I think, the single best soccer match I have ever seen.) Read More »

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Empire of Sport

June 25, 2010 | by

The group stage of the 2010 World Cup ends today—the group stage of the first African World Cup, as we’re reminded again and again by the soccer salesmanship masquerading as studio commentary before, during, and after each game. And of the six teams drawn from what is being called the “home continent,” only Ghana has managed to advance. (They’ll play the U.S. on Saturday afternoon.) The bafana bafana of South Africa are the first host nation to get knocked out so early, despite delivering the tournament’s spectacular opening goal. That goal, we were told, ignited the hearts of fans from Gibraltar to the Cape of Good Hope. And the failure of Algeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and South Africa to advance has been called an “African tragedy.”

No one is talking about a “European tragedy,” though six European sides are already heading home. (Tournament favorite Spain are in danger, too: they have to beat enterprising Chile this afternoon to advance.) And no commentators would think to describe the early exits of France and Italy as disappointments for, say, Merkel or Zapatero—or to imagine the pubs of London in a state of mourning following a surprise loss by Germany. No one would believe it if they did, continents being things that are usually divided into, you know, nations—nations often made hostile by proximity and divided by borders typically set by, you know, wars. And soccer being the way Europeans litigate hostilities in the age of the Euro.

And yet the air is thick with something in Soccer City, the Johannesburg complex where (imported?) production teams have been preparing for us all those montages of cheetahs, primitivist graphics, and Jungle Book voice-overs we’ve been eating up all tournament. We don’t have a neat African equivalent for the term Orientalism, but how about vuvuzelism?

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An Injury-Time Strike Upon a Hill

June 23, 2010 | by

Among the new heroes of this World Cup one must now count Bob Bradley, the grim, predestinarian U.S. coach—on the silent sideline his presence seems more foreboding than forbearing—much maligned by American fans in the qualifying campaign for his tactical inflexibility and cautious squad selections.

Like those other steadfast skippers pilloried for poor performance in early games, Bradley has remained loyal, through the group stage, to a cautious 4-4-2, deploying creative flair in the central midfield, when forced to, only behind his quantum destroyer son, Michael Bradley—his head shaved bald like his father in a show of grim emulation. But Bradley père’s central defense suffocated Wayne Rooney in game one, and his bold halftime substitutions saved the Americans in game two, stockpiling on the field all the technical skill the middling U.S. team could muster, heedless of the tactical consequences.

Today his foresight and patient tinkering paid off again—adjustments made at halftime and throughout the final forty-five minutes—producing a steady stream of American chances which our virtuosity in bungling them proved we hardly deserved. And in the panicked ninety-first minute, Bradley’s alignment produced, at the very end of a half thoroughly dominated by U.S. possession, an improbable opportunity to counterattack—the open field being the only soccer habitat, it seems, in which American strikers can actually thrive. Now, pending results this afternoon, it seems the U.S. path forward will take them first through Serbia and then, given a result there, into a quarterfinal against either overperforming Uruguay, or the pinball side from South Korea. Winning those winnable contests means a place in a World Cup semifinal. And these two miraculous end-game assaults—an unrelenting second half against Slovenia, comical incompetence in front of goal against Algeria preceding a single surgical strike—look now a lot less like the anarchic energy of tactical desperation. They look like providence.

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With Power Comes Responsibility

June 23, 2010 | by

The stars of this World Cup have all been letdowns. Messi, despite some flashes outside the box, hasn’t scored, Rooney and Kaka look exhausted, Robben and Drogba are injured, and Cristiano Ronaldo is so vile that his very existence is a disappointment. Instead all the talk has been of coaches.

It seems as if every team with the exception of England are playing the same tactical formation—a 4-2-3-1. The crucial number here is the 2; it refers to the holding midfielders who operate as a double defensive shield in front of the actual defense. They sit deep, keep the play narrow, and stop the opposing attackers from finding any space in which to operate. When both teams play with it, it can lead to the rather dour defensive battles that we have witnessed so far. It has traditionally been the weapon of choice for weaker teams, a way to absorb pressure—to “park the bus,” as the English commentators put it, in front of the goal. Needless to say, it’s a system beloved by coaches, less popular with fans. Both Carlos Dunga of Brazil and Vincent del Bosque of Spain are being castigated for playing without the necessary flair. Read More »

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On the Awfulness of England

June 19, 2010 | by

I had thought earlier that I might write in praise of indolence—of the joys of spending six hours lying on the sofa watching football. It had crossed my mind to say to those who complain that this World Cup isn't living up to their expectations: "It's still the World Cup, it's still fucking awesome. Would you rather we had no World Cup at all? Would you rather have to account for what you did all day?"

That was before I watched England against Algeria. All credit is due to the Algerians, who are responsible for any stylish and entertaining soccer found anywhere in the vicinity of Cape Town yesterday. They were not to know when they set up in the now de rigueur defend-and-counter attack style of this World Cup that England would be so abject, so utterly dire. At least the French team made it very clear that they didn't care.

England strode onto the pitch, all chests blown out and with something to prove. What they proved was that it wasn't the ball or the trumpets or the defending-is-the-new-attacking thesis that could spoil this World Cup. It was England. The country that claims to have invented the game put in a performance so dull that all the excitement of the previous two days—of Mexico and Serbia and the U.S. comeback and all the refereeing travesties—could evaporate under the entitled nihilism of England's football team.

At the end, Wayne Rooney stared down the barrel of the camera and snarled, ""Nice to see your own fans booing you, you football 'supporters.'" The disdain of the England supporters for their team and talisman's woeful display is, I think, the most encouraging sign yet.

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The Zombie Cup—It Lives!

June 18, 2010 | by

It seemed for about a week that this would be a tactical tournament—a dullish Cup, shadowed by Inter’s Champions League triumph, marked by negative play and cautious counterattacking lineups, and ultimately crowning, perhaps more decisively than a champion, the incisive geeksite ZonalMarking.net. German efficiency seemed the closest we’d get to actual electricity.

How quickly things change—and how high a German defeat lifts the hearts of fans the world over. For my money, Joachim Löw can still boast the tournament’s top performing side, as well as its top performing cashmere: Germany looked as dangerous a man down against Serbia as any team this side of Argentina, and, having gone down to that inferior squad, may no longer be plagued by the panic of preeminence that seemed to trip them up in a lackluster first half. Ghana, beware.

The true maestros of today’s early-game tournament resurrection were, of course, the referees. There will surely be howls of outrage in the coming hours and days over the nine yellow cards (six in the first thirty-six minutes) in Serbia’s defeat of Germany, and over the preposterously disallowed U.S. goal against Slovenia, which would have delivered three points to the Americans and made them the first team in the tournament’s history to recover from a 2-0 halftime deficit and actually win. But as fans of the game, we shouldn’t be howling—or howling too long, anyway. However erratic, those decisions are not injustices, they are refereeing, and a happy reminder that soccer is not a game of numbers, like poker, mastered by biding one’s time, but a game, beneath the tactics, of chance. You buy your ticket and you take the ride.

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